The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh is counted among the greatest artists of all time. His most famous and beloved masterpieces like The Starry Night and Sunflowers plaster the walls of dormitories, classrooms, and office spaces. Here at The Phillips Collection, we are lucky enough to own Entrance to the Public Garden in Arles and The Road Menders, among others. Both works are currently on view at the Phillips.
Though van Gogh’s widespread fame today may not suggest it, he was only successful in selling a single painting during his lifetime, The Red Vineyards at Arles. His brother and pen pal, Theo, worked as an art collector, frequently expending his resources to attempt to sell Vincent’s paintings. As an intern here at the Phillips, and as an aspiring art professional, I feel a deep and humble connection to van Gogh and his particular struggle to be recognized as an artist. Van Gogh was perpetually fighting an uphill battle, and was rarely taken seriously by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he produced more than almost any other known artist, as nearly 900 paintings and over 1,000 drawings survive him.
Striving to find one’s place in the art world is daunting. Van Gogh was constantly reminded that his technique was not in style, that he had started too late, and that he was an amateur. Undergraduate art students are often faced with the challenge of explaining our passion to those who see it as a hobby, as idealistic, or as necessarily non-lucrative. Though I am certain that any young artist would prefer to sell a few more paintings than our friend van Gogh, it is inspiring to read the stories and letters of a man with such great hope, in the face of very few tangible successes. Perhaps this was best for Vincent, as he stated in a March 1882 letter to Theo: “Occasionally, in times of worry, I’ve longed to be stylish, but on second thought I say no—just let me be myself—and express rough, yet true things with rough workmanship.”
Elizabeth Federici, Marketing & Communications Intern